Calamity Jane to Her Daughter


Program Note

From the New York Times by John Rockwell

For some years now, Dora Ohrenstein has been known but not quite known as the soprano soloist in the Philip Glass Ensemble. Because of the nature of Mr. Glass’s Minimalist style, in which Ms. Ohrenstein is called upon to vocalize wordlessly amid highly amplified instrumental lines, her musical and theatrical gifts have remained largely depersonalized.

On Monday night at the Dance Theater Workshop, in the first of two nightly performances there, Ms. Ohrenstein burst her bonds with a vengeance. In what she called a music-theater piece titled ”Urban Diva,” she presented seven short text-settings by seven composers. Each found her decked out in a different costume and assaying a different musical style.

As a unified theatrical experience, this proved a little heterogeneous. And where the urbanity, in the sense of modern big-city stress, lay in Ben Johnston’s setting of the possibly apocryphal letters of Calamity Jane was hard to discern.

But as a showcase for Ms. Ohrenstein’s talents, the evening proved successful indeed. And the most successful setting of all was this very same Ben Johnston work. The letters themselves, real or not, are touching and sad, the plaintive efforts of a tough yet tender woman to reach out to a daughter who was not allowed to see them until after her mother’s death. Mr. Johnston, one of the best nonfamous composers this country has to offer, based his setting on cowboy-style American folk music, but refracted it with increasing distortion through his own microtonal idiom. The result was homespun yet disorienting, like the letters. And Ms. Ohrenstein’s quietly agonized performance proved more telling than her flashier incarnations.

Part of her success in the Johnston could be attributed to her uncanny accuracy in sustaining the most complex chromaticism. Tonally, she has an operatic soprano of decent quality, but the nature of her training makes her pop approximations ring a little arty.

In the first half of the program, apart from the Johnston, that meant a lot of somewhat forced energy expended on fairly lightweight material. This reservation applied to the pieces with music by Scott Johnson, Jed Distler and Daryl Runswick, whose ”Lady Lazarus” was the only work not commissioned by Ms. Ohrenstein.

The pieces grew meatier in the second half, with strong efforts by Anne LeBaron, Linda Bouchard and, especially, Anthony Davis. But it was the Johnston that distinguished the evening. With or without Ms. Ohrenstein’s worthy advocacy, this is a work that demands a wider hearing.

Charles Otte was the director and lighting designer, with costumes by Claudia Brown and sound by Eric Liljestrand. The assisting musicians were Phillip Bush, Mary Rowell and Bill Ruyle.

About Ben Johnston

American composer of mostly stage, chamber, choral, and vocal works that have been performed throughout the world. He is widely recognized for generalizing Harry Partch’s system of Just Intonation (proportional…